The impact the motorcycle has had in Africa is a remarkable tale of many threads told all over the continent. It bears recalling as the current digital technology-driven chapter unfolds.
In one thread, it is recounted how it has played a role in politics such as in mobilising votes, and, in another, how it has brought distant villages closer and expanded urban areas.
With this latter, along with providing a fast and reliable mode of transportation in urban centres is the ease with which the motorcycle has afforded transport in the remotest of places with no more than a cow track for a road, especially during an emergency.
A more distressing tale can also be told of how poachers are using it to the detriment of conservation efforts by enabling criminal access to forests and the haul bush meat or rhino horns.
Another sorry aspect is the impact it has often had, not only in maiming the incautious two-wheeled driver and the pillion rider alike, but in the resulting weight on the already overburdened health services with the motorcycle accident victims disproportionately filling our hospital wards.
It, however, has mostly been for the good with the economic empowerment it has enabled, essentially with the surge of young, unemployed youth and the easy accessibility it is allowing them to make a living with motorcycle taxis.
Variously known as taxi-moto in Kigali, boda boda in Kampala and Nairobi (also nduthi in Kenya), or okada in Lagos (Nigeria) among other local flavoured names in other parts of Africa, the more remarkable their impact has been when you add the snowball effect from the service industry that has organically grown around them – the motorcycle mechanics, the hardware and spare-part shops, the hotel kiosks around their waiting sheds and the like.
And, now, another chapter has, of late, been unfolding with disruptive technologies the likes of local motorcycle taxi-hailing start-ups such as Yego Moto and SafeMotos in Kigali, with the latter also in Kampala.
Also wanting in are the global ride-hailing rivals Taxify and Uber, which are reportedly preparing to enter the Rwanda market, after having already launched motorcycle passenger service in Uganda as an addition to their traditional taxi cab-hailing service. Taxify has also added a similar service in Kenya.
Uber’s motorcycle venture – uberBoda – in Uganda is its first motorcycle service in Africa, after having first introduced it in Asia.
Indeed, Africa holds great promise for investors in the market, as much for the motorcycle manufacturers (some of whom already have assembly plants in Kigali and elsewhere in the region), as for the local start-ups and the global ride-hailing giants.
The World Bank projects Africa’s population to reach 2.8 billion by 2060, the majority of whom it is also projected will rely on transport alternatives such as the two-wheeled rides and the more commercial ride-hailing service providers are now jostling to capture.
But it is the manufacturers who have demonstrated the potential. For instance, one report cites a research note by Standard Bank on Indian motorcycle exports for the period 2008 to 2013 that showed a whopping increase of 870 per cent to Rwanda, with the highest rise in the bike exports being to Djibouti and Sierra Leone at over 1,000 per cent each.
All told, however, the average increase of the Indian motorcycle exports to Africa as a whole for the period rose to an impressive 175 per cent.
In the meantime, if the bikes can be deemed as hardware, the relevant authorities are playing their enabling role across the continent on the software as we get digitally entrenched.
Thus, in addition to the ride-hailing apps, for instance, the Rwanda government has also been pushing for adoption of cashless payments, including universal uptake of the upgraded Intelligent Connected Fare Metre (ICFM) aimed at facilitating electronic billing by the taxi-moto and traditional taxi-cab operators.
While many of the taxi-moto riders are still trying to come to grips the disruption occasioned by technology, some have reportedly expressed some concerns on the initiative.
They mainly express concern over perceived high charges that they say risk being arbitrary when the ICFM programme gets underway by December this year.
It is important to listen to them, but they should be encouraged to embrace the new technological developments aimed at enhancing efficiency, even as the government irons out some of the remaining kinks to make the platform friendly to the riders.
They however should stand advised that not even the taxi-moto riders will escape what an impressed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former AU Commission Chairperson, described as Rwanda’s inexorable “wall-to-wall ICT infrastructure” during her benchmarking tour in Kigali earlier this week in her current capacity as policy minister under the South Africa Presidency.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.